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This study examines ecological issues from the cosmological perspective. Ecological crisis or environmental problems are certainly related to moral and ethical issues. The severity of ecological crisis, however, requires us to look at a deeper dimension of the crisis, beyond the realm of ethics and morality. The modern ecological awareness awakens us to reflect on and contemplate a more fundamental issue concerning the ecological crisis. Understanding the nature of ecology requires a cosmological orientation. The modern scientific worldview, however, has resulted in conceiving the universe as a mere “object” of our research for the sake of human selfish benefit, an anthropocentric worldview. This article is an attempt to recover or re-discover the significance of cosmology in order to appropriate the place of human beings in the universe from the Confucian, especially Korean Neo-Confucian scholar Yi Yulgok (1536–1584)’s perspective. Yulgok’s Neo-Confucian worldview and philosophy are based on his cosmology, and his approach in dealing with human beings and the controversy regarding human nature is also based on his cosmological assumption. Ecological issues are closely related to cosmological issues. The article examines Yulgok’s understanding of the universe to elucidate the implication of the cosmology in relation to modern ecological awareness.

cosmology , ecology , environment , Korean Neo-Confucianism , Yi Yulgok , anthropocentrism

    The title of this article touches upon three major topics, ecology, cosmology, and Korean Neo-Confucianism. How are these three subjects to be related to each other? All these three are serious topics and each requires substantial discussion. What I attempt to do in this article, however, is to discuss each topic in the context of the others to elucidate the theme of “Ecology and Korean Con-fucianism.” I shall first discuss the relationship between ecology and cosmology in general, and then explore the Korean Neo-Confucian cosmology of Yi Yulgok (1536–1584) in expounding its ecological implications. My approach in this article is to argue that the ecological issues are profoundly cosmological issues and the ecological crisis is fundamentally a cosmological crisis. Often we think of environmental issues and ecological crises in terms of the moral and ethical sense of “care” or “action.” The root of this ecological crisis and the degree of its seriousness, however, require us to search a deeper level of this problem. We can no longer look for a temporary remedy to deal with this crisis. We have to search for a deeper cause of this problem in light of the history of human civilization especially in the West. Furthermore, the ecological issue is neither a mere moral and ethical issue nor simply a political or public policy issue, but it is fund-amentally a cosmological issue. The March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan was a powerful reminder of the fact that we can no longer afford the idea that human beings are the center of all beings and the measure of all things (Protagoras). I do not intend to minimize the significance of human responsibility nor disregard the place of human beings in the cosmic order. Rather, what I intend to do is to explore and interpret Yulgok’s understanding of the universe as a foundation in developing an “eco-cosmology,” or an ecologically-conscious-cosmology by inter-preting Yulgok’s Neo-Confucian philosophy, especially his two seminal essays, i.e., the Treatise on the Way of Heaven (Ch’ŏndoch’aek, 天道策) and the Treatise on Numerical Changes (Yŏksuch’aek, 易數策).


    The word ecology stems from the Greek word oikos and logos. The word oikos means “house” or “dwelling,” and logos means “reason,” “rationality,” and “theory” among others. In this sense, eco-logy is a rational and theoretical study of the universe in which we live. The universe is the “house” of all beings. Since the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment in the West, ushering in the dawn of the modern age, the perception of the oikos and the universe has shifted profoundly in making human beings, not the cosmos or the oikos, as the center of all beings. Moreover, as Lynn White, Jr., one the foremost medieval historians, has stated, we considered our planet was the center of the universe:

    Ecological issues are closely connected to worldviews and worldviews are also shaped by our understanding of the universe, cosmology. On the other hand, the way we understand the universe also affects the way we relate to the universe. The universe or cosmos is not to objectively be defined but to subjectively be com-prehended and appreciated by us. The way we comprehend and understand the universe is very much part of our being in the universe. In this respect, the “modern mentality” or as Professor Tu Weiming put it, “the Enlightenment mentality,” has become an acute problem for elevating the human as superior to all other beings, “anthropocentrism.” To counter this “Enlightenment mentality,” Tu Weiming, for example, proposed the term “anthropocosmic”2 in emphasizing the unity of human beings and the universe. Cosmology, in this respect, is no longer an intellectual and scholarly study of the cosmos as an object, but a form of human subjective self-understanding in relationship with the cosmos. In this sense, cosmology is not a mere intellectual discipline using “scientific” analysis of the universe as an object of our investigation. Rather, it is a form of “self-awareness” or “self-understanding” as a way of being in the cosmos or the oikos. In this case, human beings as a subject, also must be included in the process of understanding the universe. This requires a change of our attitude, a change of the habit of heart, a radical conversion or a spiritual metanoia. It requires a different mode of being in the universe as a form of spiritual experience.

    From a methodological point of view, we need a fresh understanding of the universe from the point of view of ecology, we consider the universe as our “house” (oikos) or “dwelling.” The ecological concern has to do with a unitary vision or an integrated view of reality. As we have seen above, the proper ecological perspective is a unitary vision of the human and the cosmos. To in-vestigate the intrinsic relationship between human beings and the universe from the ecological point of view, it is necessary to investigate the meaning of the term ecology. Is ecology in the domain of the logos? Is ecology our human logical or ideological analysis of the universe, thus, an exercise of human logos on the cosmos? If so, the nature and characteristics of this logos are the same as the logos that created the modern contemporary problem and crisis in the first place, namely the Enlightenment mentality that shaped the “modernity,” in elevating our human logical and rational thinking, and making the scientific method the absolute norm. Furthermore, the concept logos, as formulated and developed in Western civilization, has an unmistakable anthropocentric thrust. The modern scientific worldview was one of the results of anthropocentrism. We need a new way of thinking, turning from the anthropocentric and the logos oriented way of thinking to the “cosmocentric” thinking: from an aggressive and intrusive way of reducing the mystery of the universe to a way of understanding and appreciating the mystery of the universe without reducing it into a mere human logos, the “cosmo-centric” worldview. This is a radical change of thinking, a metanoia. This new way of thinking is not entirely “new” but a re-discovery or a re-interpretation of the pre-modern wisdom found in our own traditional spiritual and religious traditions. In this respect, my attempt is to go back to the Neo-Confucian idea of the universe for a source of inspiration to develop a cosmocentric worldview, not an anthropocentric but a cosmocentric cosmology, or I submit “cosmoanthropic” cosmology. By “cosmoanthropic,” I mean to think of the universe not from the human centered, the anthropocentric perspective, but from the perspective of the cosmos as the oikos of human beings, and human beings within the universe. This attitude requires us to open our heart-mind, to listen to the sound of the cosmos, and attune to the rhythm of the universe, not an aggressive and invasive way of penetrating the cosmos but a receptive and responsive way of following the flow of the cosmos. My concern in this attempt is neither to seek the nomos or the laws and the rules of the oikos nor to reduce the mystery of the oikos, or the universe, into the realm of nomos. The cosmos is not an object to be apprehended but a subject to be appropriated and appreciated. This attitude allows us to open to the irreducible, inexhaustible, and unexplainable cosmic phenomena containing the mystery of the universe.

    1Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in Western Man and Environmental Ethics: Attitudes toward Nature and Technology, ed. Ian G. Barbour (Reading, Mss.: Addison-Wesley, 1973, 27–28). Originally published in Science 155 (March 1967): 1203–7.  2Tu Wei-ming has expounded the fundamental unbroken continuum of the human and the heaven in his earlier interpretation of the Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation and Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).


    In the course of Neo-Confucian cosmological development, human beings, and Heaven and Earth, were placed within the proper context of the universe. Confucian cosmology concentrates not only on the earth but, more importantly, on the universe. In order to develop an ecology which will truly take care of the earth, we have to shift our perspective from an “anthropocentric,” or even a “geocentric,” view of the earth to a “cosmocentric” one. The earth has to be understood in relation to the universe, as expressed in the term, “Heaven and Earth” in the Neo-Confucian tradition. Human beings are in harmony with Heaven as expressed in the Neo-Confucian terms, “making one with Heaven and the human” (tianrenheyi, 天人合一). This Confucian assumption provided the foundation for Yulgok to develop his deep understanding and a profound appreciation of the cosmos as expounded in the Treatise on the Way of Heaven (Ch’ŏndoch’aek, 天道策) and the Treatise on Numeric Changes (Yŏksuch’aek, 易數策).

    Neo-Confucian cosmology as expounded by Yi Yulgok implies the significance of a “cosmoanthropic” view of the universe and the world. I use the term “cosmoanthropic” in describing Yulgok’s cosmology rather than “anthropocosmic” because the term “antrhropocosmic” still implies that human beings, rather than the cosmos, are the center, but the “cosmoanthropic” worldview begins with the cosmos, not with humans. One of the significant transformations found in the Neo-Confucian tradition, compared to Classical Confucianism, was not only the Neo-Confucian interest in cosmology but, more importantly, the shift of emphasis from “anthropocentric” cosmology to “cosmo-anthropic” cosmology: The Neo-Confucian ideas such as taiji (太極), yin-yang (陰陽), wuxing (五行), and li (理)and qi (氣), all started with cosmological concepts and ontological principles before they were applied to explain human beings. Classical Confucianism, on the other hand, developed an “anthropocosmic” vision by starting with the human and expanding to the cosmos as found in the following quotation:

    This statement from the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong, 中庸) demonstrates the unity and interaction between the cosmos and human beings. Furthermore, the idea of “sincerity (cheng, 誠)” plays a critical role in relating human beings to Heaven and Earth. The Zhongyong, together with the Great Learning or Daxue (大學) were most influential on Yulgok’s Neo-Confucian philosophy, especially in developing the idea of “sincerity” or “cheng/sŏng (誠)” as the key concept in integrating the human, and Heaven and Earth. In the Zhongyong, the process of relating human beings to Heaven and Earth starts with and relies on individual self-cultivation. In this regard, the idea of “cheng/sŏng” is crucial as an integrative principle of the human and “Heaven and Earth” in understanding the anthropological dimension of the universe. On the other hand, however, Yulgok was deeply concerned about the cosmological dimension of human beings. Yulgok’s two most important essays on the cosmos, namely, the Treatise on the Way of Heaven (Ch’ŏndoch’aek, 天道策) and the Treatise on Numeric Changes (Yŏksuch’aek, 易數策) were written as parts of his civil service examinations. Yulgok started the series of his civil service examinations when he was twenty-three, and took first place in each examination. The Treatise on the Way of Heaven was his first essay written for the exam. The other one, the last of the state exam series, was taken when he was twenty-nine, and this essay was the Treatise on Numeric Changes. In both essays, Yulgok constructed his cosmology in a comprehensive manner by interpreting the basic Neo-Confucian cosmological and ontological ideas and concepts in a fundamental relationship with human beings and affairs.

    Unlike Classical Confucianism, including Confucius himself who stated, “It is man that can make the Way great, and not the Way that can make man great,”4 Neo-Confucianism explicitly explored the intrinsic unity of the way of human beings and the way of Heaven and Earth. Yulgok, while fully appreciating the role of the human in the trinity of the human, and “Heaven and Earth,” was also deeply engaged in the cosmological idea of `taiji/t’aegŭk (太極), yin-yang/ŭmyang (陰陽), wuxing/ohaeng (五行) and li/yi (理) and qi/ki (氣), and he was equally fascinated with the Book of Changes (Yijing, 易經) in understanding the symbolic representation of the universe. In other words, Yulgok understood the universe as a symbolic system engaged in a process of dynamic change. “Symbolic system” means neither a sheer “formality” nor “without substance,” but a way of human self-understanding: a dynamic mutual participation and interpenetration between the cosmos and the human. In other words, for Yulgok, the universe is neither an unintelligible object nor a mere mechanical system, but a living dynamic being in which we, human beings, participate as our “house” or the oikos.

    Based on the notion of “sincerity” as the unitary and the integrative principle not only in relating the human to the cosmos but also in forming the trinity of the human, and “Heaven and Earth, Yulgok developed a broader implication of the interrelationship between the human and the cosmos. Yulgok developed the intrinsic ontological unity between the human and the cosmos by stating the fundamental yin-yang movement that generates, maintains, transforms, and harmonizes all beings in the universe. His essay, the Treatise on the Way of Heaven or Chŏndoch’aek (天道策) is one of the most explicit and elaborate explanations of how the yin-yang/ŭm-yang (陰陽) movement governs and unites the human and the universe, and how li/yi (理) and qi/ki (氣) are the underlying “principle” and “vital force” of all beings in the universe. In this treatise, Yulgok emphasizes the unbroken ontological unity of the human and the cosmos, and mutual co-responses between the human phenomena and the cosmic phenomena.

    Here we may clarify the function of the yin-yang phenomena and the role of the li-qi theory of the Neo-Confucian tradition in general and Yulgok in particular. As is the case with most Neo-Confucian scholars, Yulgok used the yin-yang movement as the most fundamental of two distinctive yet related forces of the universe, the mutation of yin and yang is expressed in the symbol of `taiji/t’aegŭk (太極). As Yulgok asserted, `taiji/t’aegŭk (太極) is not an ontological entity that exists apart from yin and yang, and taiji is not an independent being from which yin and yang are generated or produced. Instead, taiji for Yulgok was a powerful symbol manifesting the mystery of the subtle yet profound process of “change” and “transmutation” of the two forms of the vital force, namely, yin and yang of the universe. Human beings also share the same yin-yang vital force with all other beings in the universe. For this reason, human beings share the unbroken unity with “Heaven and Earth.” In this sense, human beings must be understood in a fundamental unity with the cosmos. Yulgok’s cosmology, thus, begins with the cosmic force of yin and yang and is then also applied to human beings. In this regard, for Yulgok, human beings also are governed by the cosmic flow of the yin-yang mutation. On the other hand, however, Yulgok also understood that human beings possess a transformative power in relating to the cosmos. In this respect, while Yulgok accepts the fundamental unity of the human and the cosmos due to the basic ontological principles such as li/yi and qi/ki, it does not mean that he would consider that human beings are entirely subjected to the cosmos. Rather, for Yulgok, human beings have a unique capacity to relate to “Heaven and Earth.” This relationship is neither deterministic in the sense that the human is under the complete control of the cosmic forces and determined by the cosmos, nor entirely independent from the cosmos, but is a mutual interaction between the human and the universe.

    Yulgok’s other essay, the Treatise on Numeric Changes (Yŏksuch’aek, 易數策), also expounds the dynamic changes of the universe and human relationship to the cosmic phenomena. Yulgok, like many other Neo-Confucian scholars of his time, took the Book of Changes (Yijing, 易經) seriously and studied it very carefully. The Book of Changes or Yijing, was understood primarily as a book of divination, but it became the primary source for the Neo-Confucian scholars in developing a Neo-Confucian cosmology. It is also known that Confucius himself reportedly studied the Book of Changes so thoroughly that the binding strings of his copy of the Yijing were broken three times as Yulgok himself mentioned. In his response to the question given to him by the civil service examiner, Yulgok tried to establish the three fundamental frameworks for understanding the cosmos and its relation to the human as follows:

    1) The symbolic structure as shown in the Yijing and the numbers employed in it indicate that the universe is neither a fixed physical object nor a mere mechanical entity; rather, it is a living, dynamic, and changing reality.

    2) The universe is not a mere physical reality but, more importantly, a herme-neutical reality: human understanding and interpretation of the universe, through images, numbers, and hexagrams, play a critical role in comprehending the universe. In this sense, Yulgok’s interpretation of the Yijing had become the prime model through which he understood the cosmos and the human. The human is an active agent in the interpretive process of understanding the symbolic structure of the universe. This is the case especially with Yulgok’s cosmological construction. According to Yulgok, the Yijing’s symbolic structure was interpreted or clarified by the three sages: Wen, the first king of the early Zhou period, Zhougong, the Duke of Zhou, and Confucius and, thus, the knowledge of the Yijing was passed on to later generation.5 The sage as a true human being is able to listen to the sound of the universe, attune to the cosmic flows, and interacts and communicates with the universe:

    It was also crucial for a sage to interact with the universe: “The virtue of a sage is to coincide with Heaven and Earth. Their brilliance is like the sun and the moon. Their order coincides with the four seasons.”7

    3) The universe is an open system with a certain principles, patterns, and regularity. The Sixty-four Hexagrams, for example, appear to be a limited number of variations, but when taken in a symbolic form, they can provide unlimited possibilities of being in the universe: “In general, we know the limited variations of the Sixty-four Hexagrams but we know the inexhaustible functions of the Sixty-four Hexagrams.”8 These possibilities and variations, however, are governed by the patterns, the norms, and the principle (li/yi) inherent in the cosmos. The principle and the patterns of this dynamic process are called the Way (Dao). Thus, every being in the universe, and the universe itself, are governed by a certain principle (li/yi). In this sense, the universe for Yulgok is an open system, not total chaos but a cosmos: it is an orderly universe with openness for a new possibility, not a closed system.

    3A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 107–8.  4Analects, 15:28, in Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 44.  5Yulgok chŏnsŏ [栗谷全書], vol. 1 (Seoul: Sungkyunkwan University Press, 1971), 308 (kwŏn 14:48b).  6Ibid., 14:49a.  7Ibid., 14:50b.  8Ibid.


    Yulgok believed that the universe could not be completely comprehended by human intelligence or through human thought processes alone. He believed that the universe is a “mystery” not to be reduced to the rational or conceptual frame-work of an intellectual system. That this dimension of mystery was irreducible to any fixed form of intelligence was very keenly appreciated by Yulgok.

    It can be understood as the “sacred” dimension of the universe. We have a sense of “awe” toward the universe. The universe as a “symbol system,” as under-stood by Yulgok, “manifests” itself to us as much as it “conceals” itself from us. This is the power of symbol, which reveals without defining, or delimiting, itself. The universe reveals and the humans (sages) decipher the meaning of the universe or try to understand the workings of the universe.

    A Confucian sage must not be understood as an astrologer or a diviner but the one who understands the Confucian cosmological assumptions and discerns their human implications. For this reason, often, even sage kings made use of sorcery or divination, not because of their blind trust in the practice, but because of the acceptance of their intellectual limitations and their willingness to listen to the mysteries of the universe.9 Yulogk, in both Chŏndoch’aek and Yŏksuch’aek, tried to show his understanding of the universe in avoiding two extremes: a fatalistic or a deterministic view on one hand, and an intellectual reduction on the other. The former indicates that human beings are not mechanically dictated to by the universe, the latter shows that the universe preserves the dimension of mystery so it appears “sacred” to us. For Yulgok, the Yijing was not a mere book of sorcery or divination but a book of cosmology illuminating the relationship between the universe and the human through the symbolic system of the Sixty-four Hexagrams.

    Yulgok can be a rich resource for inspiration in re-cognizing and re-discovering the cosmological dimension of Korean Neo-Confucianism in de-veloping an eco-cosmology, a new cosmology in emphasizing the interrelationship of human beings and the universe. This new eco-cosmology, in turn, will become a foundation for understanding ecological issues from the cosmological per-spective.

    9Ibid., 14:51a.

  • 1. Chan Wing-tsit 1963 (trans.) A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. google
  • 2. Panikkar Raimon 2010 The Rhythm of Being: The Gifford Lectures. google
  • 3. Ro Young-chan 1998 “Ecological Implication of Yi Yulgok’s Cosmology” Con-fucianism and Ecology. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong ed. google
  • 4. Tu Wei-ming 1989 Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness. google
  • 5. Tucker Mary Evelyn, Grim John 1994 Worldviews and Ecology: Religion, Philosophy, and the Environment. google
  • 6. White Lynn Jr. 1973 “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in Western Man and Environmental Ethics: Attitudes toward Nature and Technology. Ian G. Barbour (ed.), Reading google
  • 7. 1971 Yulgok ch?ns? [栗谷全書, Complete Works of Yi Yulgok]. google
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